Dalit anger in Haryana

Print edition : January 16, 2004

Spontaneous expressions of Dalit assertion are reported from across Haryana following the State administration's silence over the issue of the missing Dalit sarpanch of a village in Rohtak district.

in Rohtak

A demonstration in Rohtak to condemn the atrocities against Dalits.-PICTURES: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI

SERIOUS questions have been raised in Rohtak and the rest of Haryana about the State government's indifference towards the increasing atrocities against Dalits. Although instances of attacks on this section of society are not new, only recently have Dalits begun to express their anger. The latest incident involves the mysterious disappearance since October 12 of Karan Singh, an elected Dalit sarpanch of Pehrawar village in Rohtak district. The administration has kept a studied silence in the matter despite an atmosphere of increasing unrest.

On December 21, a "Mahapanchayat" of concerned citizens was held in Rohtak, where several political parties, barring the Congress(I), the ruling Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) and the Bharatiya Janata Party, condemned the growing atrocities against Dalits and demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiry into the case of the missing sarpanch.

While the absence of a reaction from the INLD is understandable, it is amazing that the main Opposition party in the State, the Congress(I), should maintain silence. Congress Legislative Party leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda belongs to Rohtak.

For over two and a half months now, Dalit organisations and some political parties have been agitated over the issue of the disappearance of the sarpanch. But it appears that there is more to the story.

Pehrawar is dominated by Brahmins. Around 800 Brahmin families and 100-odd Dalit families live in the village. Needless to say, it is the Brahmins who wield more social and political clout in their village.

According to Bharpai Devi, at 10 p.m. on October 12, her husband was taken away by some members of the Brahmin community for a meeting at a dairy. He never returned. Karan Singh, village residents said, was under pressure for a long time from a Brahmin organisation called the Gaur Brahmin Shikshan Sanstha, to "gift" away 20 acres (eight hectares) of prime shamlat land. Another influential group had been pressuring Karan Singh not to oblige. The sarpanch was caught in the dispute. Surinder Mallik, a State committee member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said the sarpanch was not obliged to give away any such land without a two-thirds majority of the panchayat. Mallik said that it was quite likely that the sarpanch had become a victim of State-level political tussles. While the president of the Sanstha owes allegiance to the Haryana Vikas Party (HVP), the other faction is allied with the INLD.

What was most shocking was the reluctance of the administration even to take cognisance of the fact that the sarpanch was missing. On October 16, after making several enquiries regarding the whereabouts of her husband, Bharpai Devi went to the police to file a First Information Report. The Station House Officer (SHO) allegedly refused to register it. She named the persons who had taken away her husband but the SHO appeared uninterested. He reportedly told her that the villagers had assured him that the sarpanch would return. Bharpai Devi, who is a Class IV employee in the State government approached political parties and Dalit groups. On October 17, she met the District Commissioner along with members of the Ravidas Samaj Mahasabha, where the officer gave "strict instructions" to the Superintendent of Police and the SHO to take immediate action. But no action followed. (Incidentally, SHO Vijender Sharma had reportedly suggested that she use "Tantrik Vidya" to locate her husband.)

An FIR was registered on November 25 after a massive protest demonstration was held and a memorandum was submitted to the Governor.

Fearing that the sarpanch may have been murdered, various organisations came together to form the Pehrawar Sangharsh Samiti, which included the CPI(M) and other political parties. "We took recourse to such action only after we suspected foul play," said Inderjit Singh, State secretary of the CPI(M).

Chief Minister Om Prakash Chautala visited the village on November 4 under the "Sarkar Aapke Dwar" or "government at your doorstep" programme. The matter of the missing sarpanch was not allowed to be raised at the meeting. Neither was Bharpai Devi allowed to meet the Chief Minister. "It is surprising that the Chief Minister did not ask for the sarpanch. Evidently, he must have been informed about his disappearance, but he chose to remain silent about it," Inderjit Singh said. Bharpai Devi eventually managed to get an audience with the Chief Minister, but Chautala, without even glancing at her complaint, handed it to the Deputy Commissioner.

Bharpai Devi realised that nothing was going to happen, as she had already made several rounds of the offices of the D.C. and the Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP). "I must have gone at least ten times to the offices of the D.C. and the SSP. Every time they said that the investigations were on. The persons I named in the FIR are roaming freely in the village and they taunt me that nothing will happen to them," said a tearful Bharpai Devi.

The wife and son of sarpanch Karan Singh of Pehrawar village.-

With her husband "missing", she fears for the lives of her children. She said that since the last panchayat elections in 2000, when her husband was elected sarpanch, the dominant castes in the village had been pressuring him to sign some resolution or the other. "They would never wait for a panchayat quorum but instead force him to agree to their unreasonable demands."

It was at this juncture that an action front was constituted comprising Left organisations, the Lok Jan Shakti Party (LJSP) and the Ravidas Mahasabha. After the FIR was registered, representatives of the CPI(M) and the LJSP met the D.C. whose response was hardly encouraging. While the D.C. and the SSP were both unavailable for comment, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, M.I. Khan, said that these groups were making caste factor an issue. He said that investigations were on, and that the sarpanch had a record of "disappearing". "We have interrogated the people named in the FIR but in the absence of any concrete evidence, we are unable to do anything," he told Frontline. He also did not believe that atrocities against Dalits had gone up in the State.

This is not the first time a member of the lower caste has gone missing in Pehrawar. In 1998, a young Kumhar woman, Mohini, was kidnapped, gang-raped and murdered by upper-caste youth. For a long time, no FIR was lodged and the police maintained that she had "run away" with somebody or that her family, being poor, must have sold her off. An agitation was launched and it was later revealed that some village youth had allegedly murdered her and thrown her body into a canal. Finally residents of the village along with the CPI(M) cadre, searched for the body and found the remains. Forensic tests revealed the corpse to be that of Mohini. The family of the woman, isolated and humiliated, left the village, Surinder Mallik said.

Harassment of Dalits appears to be a regular phenomenon in the village. Recently, the carcass of a buffalo calf was found in the well used by Dalits. "Not only was our well polluted, but we were forced to take the blame for that," said Bharpai's son who is studying law. Dalits were forced to build a separate temple as Brahmins resented and resisted their entry into the village temple.

Pehrawar is not an exception. A few months ago, a woman Dalit sarpanch was dragged by the hair and beaten in public at Gandhra village in Rohtak district. The victim of a conflict between dominant caste groups in the village, she was being pressured to take decisions in favour of one particular family. Similarly, in Kharkhara village, en route to Meham, a Dalit woman was dragged through the village at pistol-point and raped. The family had to agree to compromise and no case was made out against the culprits. In Harsola, Kaithal district, some 200 families that were attacked fled their homes. They were later pressured into withdrawing the cases registered under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

Said Ram Mehar, convener of the Action Front: "It is not an issue just of Karan Singh. It concerns the issues of dignity and self-respect." LJSP State president Shamsher Singh said it was baffling that no statement had emerged from the Home Ministry on the incident. "This issue is discussed not only in Rohtak but all over Haryana," he said. Even in the Kharkhara rape case, he said only LJSP and CPI(M) leaders had visited the village and forced the administration to take some action. The Congress(I) did not even issue a statement.

Karan Singh may not be found at all. But the fundamental problem in the latest episode as well as other previous incidents involving Dalits is the partisan role played by the administration. There is also a growing feeling that major political parties are reluctant to view such incidents with the seriousness required.

On the other hand, spontaneous expressions of Dalit assertion are reported from the State. D.R. Chaudhary, a leading academic and social activist, said a growing sense of frustration among Dalits could be sensed despite the lack of organised resistance. Apart from the caste factor that militates against them, the use of relatively new technology in agricultural operations has affected the livelihood of this community. Used to working in fields owned by the dominant castes, Dalits have been deprived of work with the advent of machines like combine harvesters.

It was only last year that the State was shaken out of its stupor by the lynching of five Dalit youth in Duleena village in Jhajjar district. None of the police persons present at the time of the lynching was held accountable. The accused were released on bail after they tendered an apology, and they were given a heroes' welcome. The memories of Duleena are still fresh in the minds of Dalits and for them, the Pehrawar incident is yet another instance of indifference and discrimination by an elected government.

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